Review: ‘King Richard,’ starring Will Smith

November 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Aunjanue Ellis, Mikayla Bartholomew, Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Daniele Lawson in “King Richard” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“King Richard”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in the early-to-mid-1990s, mainly in California and Florida, the dramatic film “King Richard” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Coming from an underprivileged background, Richard “Richie” Williams becomes the first tennis coach of his daughters Venus and Serena, but his unorthodox methods often clash with the traditions of the elite world of tennis.

Culture Audience: “King Richard” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Will Smith and the real-life Venus Williams and Serena Williams, as well as people who are interested in well-acted sports movies about people who triumph against the odds.

Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Will Smith and Tony Goldwyn in King Richard” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The dramatic film “King Richard” is both a tribute and a feel-good Hollywood version of how Richard “Richie” Williams guided his daughters Venus and Serena to tennis superstardom. The movie is set in the early-to-mid-1990s, at the beginning of Venus’ and Serena’s tennis careers. The tennis matches in the story focus more on Venus’ rise to tennis glory, since her championships came before Serena’s.

In the role of Richard Williams, Will Smith gives a very charismatic performance as a flawed but loving and determined father. The movie shows in abundance how Richard Williams’ stubbornness was both an asset and a liability when he became the person who had the biggest impact on Venus’ and Serena’s respective tennis careers. As it stands, this movie is told from Richard’s male and very domineering perspective.

What saves this movie from being unchecked worship of patriarchy is that it gives credit to Oracene “Brandy” Williams (Venus and Serena’s mother, winningly played by Aunjanue Ellis) as being an underrated, positive force in the family. Oracene (who was a nurse when this story took place) was the one who held the family together in their toughest times. She was also the intelligence behind some of the crucial decisions that were made when Venus and Serena were underage children. If Richard was the “king” of the family, then Oracene was undoubtedly the “queen.”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, “King Richard” doesn’t shy away from some of the controversial aspects of Richard Williams’ life, nor does the movie portray him as saintly. But the title of the movie says it all: The intention of “King Richard” is to give Richard Williams the same level of respect as the tennis stars who are treated as sports royalty. It’s a bit of a stretch, considering that Richard wasn’t the only coach that Venus and Serena ever had.

The movie acknowledges that Venus (played by Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (played by Demi Singleton) had plenty of other people who helped them along the way. There are moments when “King Richard” puts Richard Williams a little too much on a pedestal for being a “prophet” who predicted, when Venus and Serena were in elementary school, that Venus and Serena would become phenomenal tennis champs. Much ado is made about his 78-page plan where he made these predictions. The movie also depicts how Richard filmed homemade videos as electronic press kits to promote Venus and Serena.

Lots of parents have grandiose plans for their children, but it helps if those kids have the talent for whatever the parents are motivating them to do. This movie could have had a little more insight into the talent that makes Venus and Serena so special, as well as more information on when they started showing an interest in tennis. “King Richard” starts off with Venus at approximately age 11 and Serena at approximately age 10, with Richard as their “tough love” coach, already practicing on run-down tennis courts in their working-class hometown of Compton, California. At the time, Richard worked the night shift as a security guard.

The movie makes it look like all Richard had to do in the earliest days of their tennis career was to get Venus and Serena to practice a lot, in order to put the two sisters on the path to becoming great tennis players. But did Venus and Serena start with that passion for tennis, or were they pushed into it? The movie never says, because Richard (as the protagonist) is the main focus of the story. (It should be noted that Smith is also one of the producers of “King Richard.”) There are countless tennis parents who do the same things that Richard did to prepare their kids to become professional tennis players, but we don’t hear about them because their tennis kids just aren’t talented.

In the movie, Oracene (who was a widow when she married Richard in 1980) is the one who tells Richard that practicing on inferior tennis courts with substandard tennis rackets would get Venus and Serena nowhere, no matter how much hard work they did. Oracene is the one who motivates Richard to make the right connections in the elite world of tennis, where you need the kind of money that’s required to pay for training and entry fees into top tennis tournaments. However, the Williams family couldn’t afford these fees at the time. It’s at this point in the movie that Richard starts to transform himself into a maverick wheeler dealer in the tennis world.

He’s an unlikely tennis maverick. From the opening scene, the movie makes it clear that Richard’s English grammar skills aren’t very good, and he comes from a rough-and-tumble background. In a voiceover, Richard describes the type of upbringing he had: “Tennis was not a game peoples played. We was too busy running from the [Ku Klux] Klan.” (Richard was born in 1942 in Shreveport, Louisiana.)

Later in the movie, Richard tells his daughters: “When I was your age, I had to fight someone every day,” which is why he says that doesn’t get as fazed by setbacks as other people might be. The issues of racial differences and social-class inequalities are ever-present in the movie because a huge part of Venus’ and Serena’s success story is about how they became champions in a sport that’s been accessible mainly to white people who can afford it.

The Williams family members who are also depicted in the movie are Oracene’s three daughters from her first marriage: Tunde Price (played by Mikayla Bartholomew), Isha Price (played by Daniele Lawson) and Lyndrea Price (played Layla Crawford). (In real life, Venus, Serena and Isha are among the executive producers of “King Richard.”) When this movie takes place, the Williams household consists of Richard, Oracene, Venus, Serena, Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea. The girls are seen being being playful and happy around each other, doing things such as karaoke-type talent shows in their home when they spend time together.

However, “King Richard” has fairly shallow portrayals of Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea as nothing but characters whose main purpose in life is to agree with Richard and cheer on Venus and Serena when needed. In a household of five sisters, the sisters are never seen arguing with each other, or having jealousy issues because a parent seems to favor one child over another. This lack of sibling conflict is very unrealistic. The movie doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that Richard’s single-minded focus on making Venus and Serena tennis champs surely came at a cost to his relationship with his stepdaughters, who must have felt treated differently by him.

Even in the best of circumstances, “King Richard” makes it look like Richard didn’t think his stepdaughters were worthy of the same type of attention that he was giving to Venus and Serena. Richard briefly mentions that he thinks that his other daughters in the household are “future doctors and lawyers,” but if he spent any time supporting his stepdaughters’ career goals, the movie never shows it and never shows what those goals were. “King Richard” doesn’t make an effort to distinguish the personalities of Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea, because the movie just makes them background characters in the Richard Williams show.

The only time Richard is showing individual “protective dad” attention to one of his stepdaughters is in an early scene in the movie where 16-year-old Tunde is watching Venus and Serena practice on a Compton tennis court. Richard and his other stepdaughters are there too. Some guys in their 20s are nearby. One of them, who’s named Bells (played by Craig Tate), tries to flirtatiously talk to Tunde, who seems uncomfortable with his attention. She quickly walks away from Bells when Richard sees what’s going on and tells her to get away from this leering stranger. Richard steps in and orders Bells to leave Tunde alone because she’s only 16 and not interested in dating him.

In response, Bells turns into a thug and punches Richard hard enough for Richard to fall to the ground. Richard gets up and walks away, but all five of the girls have witnessed this assault while waiting in Richard’s Volkswagen van. When he gets in the van and he’s asked if he’s okay, that’s when Richard says he had to fight someone every day when he was the same ages as his daughters. “And I didn’t have no daddy to stand in the way,” he adds. “They’re going to respect y’all.”

It won’t be the last time Richard takes a beating. He gets beat up physically, emotionally and mentally in various ways during his unstoppable efforts to make Venus and Serena among the greatest tennis players of all time. He gets plenty of rejections, of course. And he’s openly ridiculed for his decision to take Venus and Serena out of junior league tennis tournaments, so that Venus and Serena could focus on their education and go directly to the professional leagues. He often annoys people with his blunt approach, because he can be arrogant.

Richard is not a smooth talker, but the one characteristic that defines Richard in his key to his success is persistence. He’s well-aware that he doesn’t come from an educated, privileged and well-connected background. But that’s exactly why he’s so hungry for the success that he wants for Venus and Serena. He’s also fiercely proud and supportive of Venus and Serena, even if they lose a match. At least that’s how the movie portrays him.

Because of Richard’s persuasive finagling, Venus and Serena sign on with their first professional coach: Paul Cohen (played by Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to coach Venus and Serena for free because he believes in their talent and wants a cut of any prize money they will eventually win. For a while, Oracene helped RIchard with coaching duties for Serena when Cohen initially said he would only coach one of the sisters for free, and Richard decided it would be Venus. Later, Venus and Serena sign on with coach Rick Macci (played by Jon Bernthal), who agrees to relocate the entire Williams household to Macci’s home base in Florida’s Palm Beach County, where he pays for all of their living expenses and buys them the house where they live.

Macci is also motivated by getting a percentage of the millions that he thinks Venus and Serena will eventually earn. At the time, the Rick Macci International Tennis Academy (in Delray Beach, Florida) was best known for training tennis star Jennifer Capriati (played by Jessica Wacnik), who was an idol of Venus and Serena. Macci is shocked and dismayed when the investment he thought he made in Venus and Serena as future junior league champs turns out to be funding for Venus and Serena to not go on the junior league circuit after all.

It’s because Richard didn’t want his future tennis champs to get burned out on the junior league circuit. Richard tells Macci of this plan after Richard got what he wanted in their contract. Richard made the then-controversial and unheard-of decision to take Venus and Serena out of the junior leagues (the traditional route for tennis players to turn pro), so they could go to school like “normal kids” while training to go straight into the professional leagues.

Richard is further convinced he made the right decision when he sees the scandalous downfall of Capriati, beginning with her 1994 arrest for marijuana possession. The arrest exposed many of Capriati’s personal problems, which she has since largely blamed on the pressures and burnout of her junior league tennis career. Many people doubted that Venus and Serena could turn pro in their mid-teens, but Venus and Serena proved the naysayers wrong.

In addition to Capriati, other real-life tennis players are depicted by actors in brief appearances in the movie. They include John McEnroe (played by Christopher Wallinger), Pete Sampras (played by Chase Del Rey) and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (played by Marcela Zacarias), who is Venus’ opponent in the movie’s big tennis showdown. McEnroe and Sampras are seen training with Cohen during one of Richard’s first meetings with the coach. Don’t expect any of these other tennis stars to have any meaningful lines of dialogue in the movie. Each person only says a few sentences.

In the movie, Richard is depicted as being a proverbial “helicopter dad” who hovers during practice and tries to tell coaches Cohen and Macci how to do their jobs. The movie demonstrates in these scenes that these coaches only tolerated Richard because of Venus’ and Serena’s talent, not because these coaches genuinely liked Richard as a friend or respected him as a business person. Macci, who’s more emotional than Cohen, isn’t afraid to express his anger at feeling deceived or frustrated by Richard. Both coaches are the friendliest to Richard when it’s about how they can make money off of Venus and Serena.

The movie tends to gloss over the fact that for all of Richard’s big talk, what really opened important doors for Venus and Serena were the money and connections of coaches such as Cohen and Macci. Richard was a package deal with Venus and Serena. We’ll never know how differently Richard might have been treated by some of these people if Venus and Serena weren’t his underage children at the start of their tennis careers.

In other words, if Venus and Serena weren’t underage children under Richard’s legal control, would he have been as successful in launching their careers? The movie implies the answer: Probably not, because less people in the tennis industry would’ve tolerated him and his admittedly alienating ways.

However, it’s precisely because Richard was the father of Venus and Serena that he protected them in ways that many coaches or managers probably would not have protected them. The issue of race cannot be underestimated because Venus and Serena got “real talk” from Richard about the racism they would experience in the sport of tennis, which has a reputation for being elitist and catering mainly to white people. As such, one of the movie’s obvious “Oscar bait” clips is a scene where a tearful Richard tells Venus in a pep talk about her groundbreaking role in professional tennis: “You’re not just going to be representing you. You’re going to be representing every little black girl on Earth!”

Venus and Serena are portrayed as polite, hardworking children who have no other interests besides tennis and hanging out with their sisters. In the movie, Richard is shown discouraging Venus and Serena from getting too close to kids outside of their family. When Richard wants a “yes” answer from his daughters, they answer, “Yes, Daddy,” like robotic kids on command. Richard expects Venus and Serena to tell him he’s their best friend when he asks. Venus complies with the answer Richard wants to hear, but Serena says Venus is her best friend first.

It’s all played for laughs and feel-good cheer. But some of this banter just seems a little too phony, giving the impression that a lot of the real story is left out about how Richard would lose his temper and say harmful things to Venus and Serena. It’s hard to believe this movie’s rosy portrayal that Richard never really yelled hurtful things to Venus and Serena, when every hard-driving, tough-talking coach does that one point or another to people whom the coach is training. The perspectives of Venus and Serena are not given much importance in this movie, except when it comes to how they’re going to win tennis matches.

For example, viewers never learn what Venus and Serena liked to study in school or what types of friends they made in school, even if the movie makes it look like Richard was the type of father who didn’t want his underage daughters to invite any friends to visit them in their home. The movie never shows how the family celebrated milestones such as Venus’ and Serena’s birthdays, or when they graduated from middle school to high school. It’s a strange omission, considering that in real life, Richard got a lot of criticism precisely because he wanted Venus and Serena to have “normal” school experiences at that age instead of going on tennis tours.

The movie’s erasure of Venus’ and Serena’s childhood experiences that aren’t related to tennis or family all goes back to the patriarchal purpose of the movie: Showing how Richard programmed Venus and Serena on how to be tennis champs, not how to prepare them for life after tennis. There have been several documentaries about Venus and Serena where the two sisters openly admit that they will have a difficult time dealing with life when they both retire from tennis.

And how hard was Richard on Venus and Serena? The movie hints that people had concerns. There’s a scene where a police officer and a government social worker go to the Williams home in Compton to investigate a complaint that Venus and Serena were being abused because of all the rigorous training that Richard made them do.

Richard and Oracene are naturally insulted and defensive. They deny any abuse, and nothing comes of the complaint. The movie makes it look like a jealous neighbor named Ms. Strickland (played by Erika Ringor) is behind the complaint, but you have to wonder if that neighbor character was created in the movie as a villainous stand-in for well-meaning people in real life who had concerns about Richard’s parenting skills.

Whether or not there was any abuse, the family did have serious problems, which is acknowledged in one of the movie’s best scenes. It’s when Oracene confronts Richard for letting his ego stifle Venus’ wishes to play in the professional leagues at the age of 14. Oracene and Richard have an argument, which leads to Oracene verbally ripping into Richard for abandoning the family he had with his first wife and not seeming to care about having a relationship with the children he left behind in the divorce. (Richard had five biological kids and one stepchild with his first wife Betty Johnson, to whom he was married from 1965 to 1973.)

During this argument, Oracene reminds Richard that he’s had a string of failed businesses because he gave up too quickly when things got a little too hard for him. It’s easy to read between the lines, even though the movie doesn’t come right out and say it: Venus and Serena were Richard’s last-ditch attempt to get rich after he failed at starting his own businesses. He needed their talent because his own skills as an entrepreneur were questionable at best.

In the movie’s zeal to put Richard on a “prophet pedestal” and to make Oracene and Richard look like a loving couple that will stay together “’til death do us part,” the movie’s epilogue leaves out this reality: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. In 2010, Richard married his third wife Lakeisha Juanita Graham (who’s young enough to be his daughter), they had a son, and then the marriage ended in divorce in 2017. Maybe the “King Richard” filmmakers think that the public shouldn’t care about these details of Richard being a failure as a husband because Venus and Serena turned out to be rich and famous.

Despite the flaws in the movie’s screenplay, “King Richard” has exemplary acting from Smith, who gives one of his best movie performances as the gruff but compelling Richard. Sidney’s portrayal of Venus gets more of an emotional journey than Singleton’s portrayal of Serena, who is mostly in Venus’ shadow at this point in the sisters’ lives. (In real life, Serena would later emerge has having a more assertive personality than Venus.)

In the movie, Richard explains to Serena that he planned for Venus to become a star first. Richard predicts Venus will be ranked No. 1 in the world before Serena achieves that same goal, but Serena will eventually be considered by many to be the “greatest of all time” in tennis. He tells Serena: “I knew you was rough, you was tough, and you was a fighter.”

Sidney and Singleton both adeptly handle the movie’s tennis-playing scenes. A big highlight of the movie is an emotionally gripping, climactic scene at the 1994 Bank of the West Classic tournament in Oakland, California. One of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t fall into the usual clichés of how sports dramas usually end. However, the tropes of a “tough love” father/coach are played to the hilt.

As a sports movie, “King Richard” might disappoint some viewers who are expecting more screen time devoted to tennis matches. But more tennis matches on screen should be expected if Venus and Serena were the central characters. “King Richard” never lets you forget that the central character is someone who was never a pro tennis player: Richard Williams. However, the movie has the grace to admit that Venus and Serena turned out to be extraordinary people because of their mother Oracene too.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “King Richard” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on November 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Joe Bell,’ starring Mark Wahlberg

August 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg in “Joe Bell” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions)

“Joe Bell”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities in 2013, the dramatic film “Joe Bell” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After his teenage son comes out as gay, a man goes on a cross-country mission to educate people about tolerance and to lecture against bullying, but he encounters some obstacles and emotional difficulties along the way.

Culture Audience: “Joe Bell” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in real-life stories that are told in a very hokey movie version.

Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller and Connie Britton in “Joe Bell” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions)

Emotionally manipulative and relentlessly cloying, “Joe Bell” has a few pivotal scenes in a corn field, which is symbolic of how densely corny this movie is. “Joe Bell” is based on a true story, but the movie throws in an unnecessary supernatural/psychological twist element that smacks of desperation to make this dramatic film look like some kind of M. Night Shyamalan shocker movie with a “surprise” reveal. “Joe Bell” is a sad example of how a movie with an important message can be sullied by filmmakers who think they have to resort to gimmicks to tell the story.

Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry wrote the abysmal screenplay for “Joe Bell.” And it’s the first movie they’ve written together since they won an adapted screenplay Oscar for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.” Unfortunately, “Joe Bell” is nowhere near being an Oscar-caliber film. The movie is so dreadful, it’s more like a low-rent, direct-to-video release that looks like something the filmmakers kind of want to forget they made because the movie turned out worse than they expected.

It didn’t have to be this way. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, “Joe Bell” has a very talented cast of people who are capable of doing better work. All of the “Joe Bell” actors are perfectly adequate in their roles. However, even the actors can’t save this ill-conceived mess that turns what should have been a unique inspirational story into a tedious “cranky dad on a road trip” movie—but with a twist that’s tasteless and insensitive to the real people who are portrayed in this movie.

Mark Wahlberg portrays the titular, hot-tempered character Joe Bell, who is ostensibly on a road trip for his gay teenage son and to teach people about acceptance of the LGBTQ community and other people who are often the targets of hate. But somehow—based on how the movie depicts what happened in real life—Joe Bell makes the trip all about Joe Bell. During this road trip, which takes place in 2013, Joe plans to walk across the United States within two years, with the goal to talk to as many people as possible about tolerance and the dangers of bullying.

Because Joe refuses to use any transportation vehicles for this trip, he carries his possessions in a backpack and a push cart. Joe is accompanied by his 15-year-old gay son Jadin Bell (played by Reid Miller), who is a vibrant and likable kid. Jadin is the inspiration for this road trip because of his experiences of being bullied at school. There are several flashbacks showing what happened before this trip.

In these flashbacks, viewers see that Joe and his loyal/long-suffering wife Lola Bell (played by Connie Britton) have a working-class life in La Grande, Oregon. (The movie never shows what they do for a living, but in real life, Joe worked at a plywood mill before he quit to go on the road trip.) Joe and Lola have another son named Joseph Bell (played by Maxwell Jenkins), who’s about 11 or 12 years old when this story takes place. Joseph is Joe’s favored child because, unlike Jadin, Joseph likes to play sports and is not as “effeminate” as Jadin.

Lola already knows that Jadin is gay and is being bullied at school. However, she’s fairly passive and waits to do something only after Jadin musters up the courage to tell Joe. Joe’s brusque reaction to Jadin coming out is to say that he still loves and accepts Jadin but that Jadin doesn’t need to “advertise” to anyone outside of the family that Jadin is gay. As for the bullying, Joe tells Jadin that he needs to fight back with violence, which is advice that Jadin refuses to take.

Jadin later overhears Joe talking to Joe’s friend Jimmy Crowder (played by David H. Stevens) about Jadin being gay. Jimmy comments to Joe about Jadin’s sexuality by saying that Jadin will probably “grow out of it,” because Jimmy says that some teenagers think it’s trendy to try to be gay. Jadin looks hurt and mortified when he sees that his father seems to agree.

Jadin is the only male cheerleader on his school’s cheerleading squad, which also includes Jadin’s best friend Marcie (played by Morgan Lily), who knows that Jadin is gay and loves and accepts Jadin for who he is. One day, after Jadin came out as gay, Marcie and Jadin are practicing some cheerleading routines on the Bell family’s front lawn. Joe angrily orders Jadin to go in the backyard to practice.

Joe says it’s because he doesn’t want the neighbors to think that Jadin is showing off, but Jadin and Marcie really know it’s because Joe doesn’t want the neighbors to see Jadin being “effeminate.” It’s a humiliating moment for Jadin, who resists Joe’s orders at first, but then is resigned to do what Joe tells him because he doesn’t want Joe to yell at him anymore. Viewers of this movie will see plenty of Joe’s temper tantrums.

The flashbacks also include the school bullying that Jadin experienced and what has almost become a movie cliché about a bullied gay teenage boy in high school: Jadin has a secret crush on someone who is part of the same homophobic clique of male students who are doing the bullying. The group is led by a stereotypical alpha-male jock named Boyd (played by Blaine Maye), who picks on Jadin any chance that he gets. Jadin has a crush on the more laid-back Chance (played by Igby Rigney), who exchanges furtive glances of attraction with Jadin in the school cafeteria.

Chance and Jadin end up at the same costume party at someone’s house. (Jadin is dressed as the Brian Slade glam rock character from the 1998 film “Velvet Goldmine.”) Jadin and Chance eye each other some more at the party. And it should come as no surprise what happens next when Chance asks Jadin if he wants to go somewhere private to have a smoke. Jadin and Chance kiss each other for the first time, but that’s as far as it goes.

But do you think closeted Chance, who hangs out with and enables homophobic bullies, would suddenly go public and admit that he’s sexually attracted to Jadin? Of course not. It leads to an entirely predictable scenario where Jadin gets a vicious beating on the school’s campus, while Chance betrays Jadin and does nothing to stop it.

This assault is the last straw for Jadin and his parents, who have a meeting with the school principal to see what can be done to discipline these attackers. The meeting goes as badly as you think it would, considering that the bullies are star athletes at the school. It makes Jadin and his family feel like they can’t count on the school to protect him.

But Jadin is about to find out that his parents are part of the problem too. One evening, during a school football game that Joe and Lola are attending, some homophobic students in the stands start throwing things at Jadin and taunt him while he’s on the field with the other cheerleaders. Joe and Lola watch in horror, but do nothing. Instead, Joe and Lola look embarrassed and quickly leave the football game. Jadin helplessly sees what is essentially Lola and Joe acting ashamed that Jadin is their child. It’s a heartbreaking moment.

All of this is necessary background information to explain why Joe is trying to make amends on this cross-country road trip. Much of it is because of he feels guilty about not being as supportive of Jadin as he should have been in the past. If you don’t know what happened in real life, you might still notice that something is “off-kilter” about this road trip. Observant viewers will easily figure it out when they see the interactions that Jadin and Joe have when they’re in places with other people.

The “reveal” comes about halfway through the movie. And it’s meant to pack an emotional wallop, but it just comes across as tacky and manipulative. The rest of the movie is a mishmash of Joe going to various places to give trite lectures about tolerance. In one scene, he ends up talking to people at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

In another scene, Joe goes outside his comfort zone and visits a gay bar, where he meets with a gay man who wants to talk to Joe about Joe’s anti-bullying mission. At the bar, Joe ends up making the acquaintance of a drag queen (played by Jason Cozmo) who’s dressed like Dolly Parton. The drag queen flirts with Joe and takes a photo with him. The movie tries to make it a comedic moment because before going to the bar, Joe told Jadin that if he saw any drag queens there, he hoped one them would be as dressed at Dolly Parton, so he could at least look at some big breasts.

It’s as if Joe and this movie want to give unnecessary reminders that he’s straight. Based on how this movie depicts him, Joe is the type of macho guy who would want to wear a T-shirt that says, “Red-Blooded American Heterosexual Man—And Don’t You Forget It!” Therefore, the movie wants to make him look more noble for this road trip, just because he’s a straight guy who’s making personal sacrificies doing advocacy work for LGBTQ people. There’s a very self-congratulatory way that Joe is presented in this movie that’s very off-putting.

There are multiple scenes where Joe has to decide how to confront very homophobic people, even though he knows he probably won’t change their minds with a 30-second scolding. And there’s a poorly written scene in the beginning of the movie, when Joe is giving a lecture at a high school in Twin Falls, Idaho. His entire speech is extremely generic and literally less than two minutes.

One of the reasons why this movie is so ineffective is that Joe spends more time complaining about how hard it is for him on this road trip instead of Joe having a real impact on the bigoted people whose minds need to be changed the most. For the most part, the movie shows that he’s “preaching to the choir.” On the rare occasion that Joe confronts hardcore bigots, the most he does is give them his business card and/or utter something quickly that they either scoff at or ignore.

At one point, Lola and Joseph join him for a visit during this road trip. And it’s where the movie gets little bit off of its high horse to show the harsh realities of how this messianic road trip has taken a toll on Lola and Joe’s marriage. She’s very unhappy that he has almost drained their bank accounts to finance this trip.

Joe’s cross-country trip has gotten national media attention, so he gets some donations from the public. However, it’s still a trip funded mainly by Joe and Lola’s savings—and fueled by Joe’s self-righteous ego. One of the things that annoys Lola is how Joe seems to love the attention of being somewhat of a celebrity for going on this trip. Strangers come up to Joe to praise him and ask to take photos with him.

It doesn’t mean that Joe doesn’t experience self-doubt or despair. Joe has a brief moment in the movie where he thinks about quitting and going back home. But you know he won’t really quit, because it seems like Joe’s intentions aren’t just about showing support for Jadin.

It’s also about feeling guilty and trying to avoid going back to his hometown, where he would have to face some very difficult truths. The movie becomes less about Jadin’s painful experiences and more about what kind of comfort level Joe is feeling at any particular moment. Therefore, it all comes back to Joe and his ego.

Gary Sinise has a small supporting role as Sheriff Westin, a cop in Colorado who meets Joe when Joe is at a very low point on the trip because Joe is running out of money. The Sheriff Westin character seems to have been created for this movie to have yet another stranger be a sounding board for Joe’s self-pity. When the sheriff makes a discovery toward the end of the film, his reaction is so ridiculous and unrealistic, it would make any cop cringe.

“Joe Bell” was originally titled “Good Joe Bell.” It’s easy to see why the title was changed, because the character of Joe Bell in the movie—just like the movie itself—is very hard to like. And there isn’t anything “good” about a movie that shoves aside the meaning of this real-life inspirational journey, just so it can be a showcase for a guy who’s on an ego trip to make himself feel better.

Roadside Attractions released “Joe Bell” in U.S. cinemas on July 23, 2021.

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